Only two days ago, a thin, old man with a white beard and a skullcap was driving his autorickshaw filled with women passengers towards Juhapura when he was hit on the head by a stone not too far away from our home. The old man kept driving and then collapsed when he reached Juhapura, blood streaming down his temple and transforming his white kurta to a dark red.
He lived, but the incident was enough to send ripples of rumours in Guptanagar. Word was that Muslims were gathering at Sankalitnagar, near the entrance of Juhapura, and would attack at any time. In Guptanagar everyone came out, armed with metal pipes and swords. But nothing happened. The incident was only good enough for the police to clamp a strict curfew. And now, two days later, it had been relaxed for a couple of hours for people to fill up their rations so that the streets could be closed down for another couple of days.
‘Mom, I don’t think it is safe to go out right now,’ I said, fully aware that no one could stop her from rushing out of the house when marriage memories filled her chest. She ignored me. ‘Where are you going anyway?’
‘You know the Swaminarayan Avenue flats at Anjali Char Rasta? Somebody was telling me they have a couple of flats vacant there. May be cheap. I’ll go look …’
‘What’s the point, mom? That’s barely five minutes by rickshaw from here … If we have to move out, it has to be more than five minutes away …’
‘You know better than I do that curfew begins from Anjali.’ Mother had her own logic. ‘That means there is no curfew there … I went there to buy vegetables the other day before the rickshaw-wala was attacked, and people were having fun … As if nothing had happened. They were eating ice creams and pizzas on the roadside, all that …’
Before leaving the house, mother looked into the mirror and carefully placed a large, red sticker bindi in the middle of her forehead. She loved to anoint her forehead with large, red dots, even wearing them to the synagogue at times to shock the Jews. She calls it her third eye and sincerely believes that without it she becomes weak. But now, it had a different function. She was going to a Hindu area and the bindi would be her armour, her shield. It would ensure that she would not be mistaken for a Muslim because of her white kurta and white hair. She was even starting to develop a habit of removing the bindi while passing through a Muslim area of the city, although with a heavy dose of guilt and anger.
‘I’ll be back,’ she said. Peeping out of the door and seeing a thin line of scooters and rickshaws passing in both directions, she stepped out.
My naive understanding of the real-estate market was that normally when people want to sell homes close to riot zones they welcome anyone with open arms. If a customer turns up at their doorstep while the violence has not even quelled, they take extra care to ensure that you don’t miss a single detail, like the relative coolness during summers, proximity to large supermarkets, access to the centre of the city and of course the most amicable of neighbours.
I expected mother to be gone for at least an hour, settled down on the Freudian couch to watch on television an old cricket match where Sachin Tendulkar was pitted against the mighty Australian bowling attack at Sharjah. Like most Indian men, I had spent a large part of my boyhood dreaming about becoming a successful cricketer, a fast bowler. I had taught myself to hurl a light rubber ball at great speeds at my neighbours during roadside cricket matches, even hurting some of them with stinging bouncers. Speed fuelled my dreams. One day I shall bowl alongside Kapil Dev, be the support bowler he never had. One day I shall hurt Australian and West Indian batsmen with stinging bouncers. Like the ones that hurt our batsmen. The dream withered away quickly when I did not even make it to the school team. In the end the desire for the game had been reduced to admiring skill in the re-telecast of old cricket matches. The outcome of the match was known. You knew whether your team was going to win or lose. It allowed you to admire technique, skill, temperament. It allowed you to forget everything around you.
Besides, it was Sachin Tendulkar, your one gladiator who fought dour battles against tough opponents. I liked to watch him bat. I liked to become him. The bat was in my hands. I was hitting the ball on the rise, over the in-field, dancing down the track to fast bowlers as if they were spinners from a club team. Nothing else existed. Just the television set and me. Me and Sachin. Sachin and me. Ecstatic crowds. Screaming millions. The world was a cricket stadium. I was the hero. They were cheering for me.
But before I could nail my complete being to an old cricket match, mother was back inside half an hour. ‘What happened?’ I asked as she walked into the living room, her shoulders slouched, her lips pursed. ‘Back so early? Did the police send you back?’
‘No, the secretary of the housing society turned me back,’ she said in a low voice, walked into the kitchen and came back with a glass of water, sipped it gently and said after a pause, ‘They don’t want people like us.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ I sat up.
‘It means that he did not even show me a vacant house. They don’t want people like us.’ Mother’s tone remained low, disturbed.
‘People like us? What is wrong with us?’
‘Meat-eaters. They don’t want meat-eaters. Only vegetarians.’ Mother was looking at the television but she was not seeing the match. She had never liked or understood the game.
‘How did he know we were meat-eaters?’
Mother was still looking at the match and said, ‘Well, he asked me my name. I said Esther David. So he said, “Meat-eaters, right?” I lied. I said no. But he said, “That is what all of them say. Sorry, but we don’t want meat-eaters.” And that was the end of that.’
Mother’s gaze had shifted from the television to the floor. Something invisible and obscene was dancing in front of her eyes, and it was seen on her face.
Just then Sachin hit a towering six off someone—a powerful swing and the ball sailed into the sea of faces. The crowd erupted in singular joyous rapture. The tricolour flag was waving in a sea of bobbing black heads and blue T-shirts. Indian faces, painted with the tricolour, were smiling ear-to-ear, jumping up and down, their hands raised to the skies.
Something was sinking inside me. I was sitting in a small boat with a large hole in its boom. An ocean was rising at my feet. Bubbles were forming at my ankles. I had never learnt to swim. This ocean or any other. The joyous screams from the television were starting to hurt my ears.
Mother took the remote from my hands and switched off the television. It was a relief but only for a few sparse moments. Suddenly, everything seemed too silent. The buzz of traffic on the main Guptanagar road was thinning out quickly. The city was starting to shut itself indoors.
From a distance came the crackling sound of a police officer barking orders into an old megaphone. He was announcing that the curfew had been reimposed. ‘People are hereby informed that a curfew has been imposed in the Vejalpur police station area. Strict action will be taken against those who break the law … Stay indoors until further orders. Do not come out of your homes or you will be severely punished …’ The policeman was barking his orders in a sing-song manner as if he was announcing the latest act of the trapeze show. As if he were saying, ‘And now ladies and gentlemen, a heart-stopping performance from our daredevil trapeze artists Raj and Neena. For the first time they will float fifty feet in the sky and change swings and that too without the safety net!’ The old megaphone, barely transmitting electricity, made the policeman’s voice crackle.
A cold stillness was starting to descend on us. ‘Robin, I don’t want your children growing up here,’ mother said. ‘I don’t want my grandchildren to know the meaning of the word “curfew”.’
I felt as if my skin was turning crisp, dry, black. My bones were melting away. I was an empty shell, as brittle, as hollow and as delicate as an emu egg.
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